Ready relief - Navy’s FIFO workforce

This article has photo gallery Published on LEUT Sarah West (author), LSIS Kayla Hayes (photographer)

Location(s): Darwin, Northern Territory, Cairns, Queensland

Members of Patrol Boat Crew Support Squadron, in front of the Fremantle Wharf at HMAS Coonawarra, Darwin. (photo: ABIS Kayla Hayes)
Members of Patrol Boat Crew Support Squadron, in front of the Fremantle Wharf at HMAS Coonawarra, Darwin.

When the Navy’s fleet of Armidale class patrol boats transitioned back to a single crewing model last year, and two Cape class patrol boats were introduced into service, a solution was needed to ensure personnel had opportunities for respite from the high operational tempo, as well as time to attend prerequisite training and professional development courses.
This would require a team of experienced patrol boat sailors and officers to remain battle-ready and at immediate notice to join any boat. With these founding principles, the Patrol Boat Crew Support Squadron was born.
Led by Officer in Charge, Commander Mitch Edwards, the Squadron consists of around 80 sailors and officers who are primarily based in Darwin and Cairns. They represent every employment category that is required to operate a patrol boat.
“Our primary role is to fill the gap left when a sailor or officer in a patrol boat has to leave from the boat for whatever reason, be it illness or injury, a family emergency, a training requirement and in some circumstances to take recreational leave,” Commander Edwards said.
“We also fulfil other roles, such as supplementing the crews when their patrol boat is undergoing maintenance. 
"This maintenance work is often conducted away from the ship’s home port in which case the Support Squadron will take over duty watch responsibilities, so that the regular crew can spend some time at home with their families.
“As this concept is refined, it will be particularly beneficial to the fleet’s Marine Technical sailors and senior sailors, who would otherwise have to remain with their vessels throughout the maintenance periods,” he said.
“In effect, we are a bit like a fly-in, fly-out workforce - we deploy sailors from Darwin and Cairns to anywhere a patrol boat is conducting operations or undertaking maintenance.”
Leading Seaman Maritime Logistics – Chef Esler Cartledge joined the Squadron last year, and said she liked the fact she was helping fellow patrol boat ‘Chefos’ to get some respite.
“In my case, I’m not just here to provide operational relief as a Chef, but also as a member of the Ship's Medical Emergency Team or as a primary health provider. 
"Basically, whatever is needed from the qualifications I have,” Leading Seaman Cartledge said.
“As a mum, I like to think that I am helping other patrol boat sailors to get more time at home with their families.
“Having served in patrol boats, before the Support Squadron was in place, and having experienced the high operational tempo those sailors are required to keep up constantly, I know how badly they need a solution that gives them opportunities for respite. 
"While our model isn’t perfect yet, we are evolving and refining it to make it really valuable to the fleet.”
During a recent visit to HMAS Coonawarra, Commander Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Stuart Mayer, said the Patrol Boat Crew Support Squadron model would be regularly reviewed until its format was exactly what the fleet needed.
“We will work throughout this year to change the shape of the squadron to ensure it has the right billets to support the fleet,” Rear Admiral Mayer said.
“This means that if we find there are not enough Marine Technician billets to allow the Squadron to cover absences, we’ll add more Marine Technician billets. 
"We’ll continue to improve the structure until we’ve got it right.”
Having completed four patrol boat commands himself, Commander Edwards said he was totally committed to seeing the model work.
“I have spent a lot of time in the patrol boat fleet and I have an intimate understanding of the challenges it faces, which is why I was part of the team that recommended we transition to single crewing the Armidale class, multi-crewing the Cape class and standing up the Patrol Boat Crew Support Squadron,” Commander Edwards said.
“This can only work if there’s an excellent support structure in place, so I have a vested interest in making sure the Patrol Boat Crew Support Squadron works and supports the people serving in the Patrol Boat Force whilst they are conducting operations, and ensuring they receive respite to spend time with their families and are able to undertake training,” he said.